Saturday, December 26, 2009

I'd like to be somebody else and not know where I've been, I'd like to build myself a house out of plasticine

It has been a long time hasn't it; that does mean peace, not... (to quote Jimi). If you check my other blogsites you'll know why - mainly planning a move to Qatar from New Zealand. That's where I am now - Doha in Qatar and my musical habits have changed. A lot!

I bought an ipod classic (black one left) before leaving NZ and loaded some CDs on it - 30 gigabites worth = because I'm not sure when I'll see my collection again. Could be a while - who knows. That was traumatic enough on its own. I'm not a fan of the compressed MP3 sound but it beats lugging vinyl half way around the world.

I also bought a (reasonable sounding) docking station in NZ and in Doha I bought an armband to hold the ipod while I use the gym at the hotel complex I'm staying in for the next few months.

This is different to blasting away the music at home in Stratford. The volume has to be measured and the content has to suit both my wife and youngest daughter who came with me. Those waters are next to impossible to navigate so I reserve the headbanger stuff for the gym.

Also different is the opportunity to buy music in Doha - only three places I've found. A Virgin megastore at Villaggio mall; a CD/DVD store at the Hyatt Plaza mall; and a tiny little place next the cinema multiplex at the City Center mall.

As a consequence of all this I've only bought two CDs since we left in late November. That's a record - I'm not sure how I've coped. The two CDs? Rory Gallagher BBC Sessions and another called Chill n'Jazz - various obscure artists. I haven't heard them yet - I need to burn them to my ipod first. If I listen to them on tinny computer speakers I'll instantly be disappointed.

I'll report back on Chill n'Jazz as soon as I can.

Currently grooving to Crowded House in the apartment and Cold Chisel in the gym. Rock on!!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fly me to the moon.

I've been away for a while haven't I. That's down to my father passing away recently. He died from complications from a stroke that he had August 18. He died September 21. It's taken me a while to regain the blogging urge.

He was a huge jazz fan. More specifically he absolutely loved the pre-world war two big band jazz outfits...and piano driven jazz from Oscar Peterson to Diana Krall. When I looked through his vinyl collection as a boy I loved looking at the Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Smith, and Count Basie covers. As a teenager I bought him stuff by Peterson and Basie. The last present I bought him was for his July 26th birthday - a DVD of Diana Krall Live in Rio. He loved it.

This entry (re-entry) is dedicated to my dad - Graham Nugent Purdy 1928-2009 - the jazz fan.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Come on skinny love just last the year

This one's for my friend Mark who asked me yesterday for some recommendations. Always tricky that - what if they don't like them?

I thought for a minute and blurted out - BON IVER. It's such an amazing experience listening to his music. Bon Iver isn't his real name, by the way. It's Justin Vernon. The mystery associated with the choice of Bon Iver to perform under is also there in the haunting music on the album For Emma, Forever ago.

I've written a lot about Flume on the 49er list below so I thought I'd add a few clips to this post instead. There's a guerrilla style a cappella version of For Emma; Lump Sum; I have to include Flume and a raw version of Skinny Love from the Jools Holland show Later. It's spectacular. Enjoy!!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

49 Bye Byes

Thought I'd do a bit of a summary post of those last 49 songs, mainly for my own interest sake, just to see a breakdown of decades, genre, gender (although I already know it will be heavily tilted to males) and maybe some other things.

So here's the list:

1 The Beatles - Don't let me down
2 Eels - Grace Kelly blues
3 The Carpenters - Rainy days and Mondays
4 Jim Croce - Alabama rain
5 Rory Gallagher - Cradle rock
6 Charlie Parker - Romance without finance
7 Dave Brubeck - Take five
7 Glen Hansard/Marketa Irglova- Falling slowly
8 Grover Washington Jnr - Jamming
9 George Harrison - Under the Mersey wall
10 John Lennon/Yoko Ono - Cambridge 1969
11 Paul McCartney - Ode to a Koala bear
12 Ringo Starr - Love is a many splendoured thing
13 Patti Smith - Babelogue/ Rock 'n' roll nigger
14 Ricky Nelson - Garden Party
15 Rage Against the Machine - Killing in the name
16 Rammestein - Asche zu asche
17 Avenged Sevenfold - Almost easy
18 Jethro Tull - Thick as a brick
19 Bon Iver - Flume
20 Jefferson Airplane - Crown of creation
21 Bob Dylan - I shall be free
22 Jimi Hendrix - All along the watchtower
23 George Harrison - Be here now
24 Badfinger - Without you
25 The Raspberries - I can remember
26 Aimee Mann - Red vines
27 Billy Bragg - Levi Stubb's tears
28 The Four Tops - I can't help myself (Sugar pie honey bunch)
29 Headband - The laws must change
30 Evermore - Light surrounding you
31 Chi-lites - Have you seen her?
32 BoyzIIMen - The end of the road
33 Oasis - Sunday morning call
34 Van Morrison - Haunts of ancient peace
35 Joni Mitchell - Song for Sharon
36 Prince - Let's go crazy
37 Beach Boys - California saga: California
38 Brian Wilson - Orange crate art
39 Woody Guthrie - Deportees
40 Mountain - Nantucket sleighride
41 David Crosby - The lee shore
42 Frank Zappa - Big swifty
43 The Tremeloes - Here comes my baby
44 Syd Barrett - Dominoes
45 Velvet Underground - Waiting for the man
46 Rolling Stones - Wild horses
47 New Radicals - You get what you give
48 Embrace - Ashes
49 The Beatles - Let it be

Okay I know there's actually 50 songs there - I stuffed up with repeating number 7. Neverthemind.

So - what have we got? The male female split is overwhelmingly male. Only three females figure in their solo state. And only four entries are of a mixed gender. So even at best it's only 7 female and 43 male. I don't consciously just listen to male musicians - it's just worked out that way. The females I do gravitate towards are strong/different ones - Yoko, Grace Slick, Marketa Irglova, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Aimee Mann types rather than the Karen Carpenter types.

Groups and soloists are fairly even though.

The Americans outnumber the British almost 2 to 1 and of the others there were two NZ, and one German. This is interesting because I generally feel that my cultural bias is to British bands and soloists. I was a tad surprised to see such a lack of balance.

Rock music clearly predominates in the genre stakes because as I stated along the way - that's what I love most!

All the decades since the 50's are represented on the list. The most heavily represented decade is the seventies - when I was aged 13 to 23. The least represented are the fifties (2 entries) and the nineties (4); then the eighties (5); the naughties (9); the sixties (12); and the seventies are the champs with 18 entries. What surprised me a little are the number from the eighties - a much maligned decade.

Okay - next entry will be about the (very few) songs I can not stand listening to.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whisper words of wisdom

49 The Beatles, ‘Let It Be’

And so the journey comes to an end, because all things must pass.

The slight dilemma about where to end this list of 49 songs (49 reasons) was settled in my mind as I wrote about the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones a few entries ago.

My love of music begins and ends with the fab four, and in terms of bookending opposites - John Lennon and Paul McCartney fit the bill.

I began in entry number one with a celebration of John Lennon’s superb ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, which was written and performed during the ill-fated Let It Be sessions. What could be more appropriate for this last entry, than a celebration of his partner – Paul, and HIS finest moment as a Beatle, also written and performed for the Get Back project that became Let It Be.

They were chalk and cheese weren’t they? Not so freakishly, they were fated to meet and work together. They were both young guys living in Liverpool who were interested in music - not hard to imagine them eventually getting together is it? All it took was a couple of mutual friends, a love of playing guitars and creating songs. This happens all over the world every second of every day – somewhere on the planet right now - two people are sitting down trying to figure out guitar chords or trying to match some poetry to an original tune.

What is freaky is that two giant talents should get together in Liverpool and by their actions totally change my world.

What often gets me is that they grew so far apart having started out like ying yang twins. Paul and John - two halves of a whole that couldn’t sustain their working arrangements. Even though they could later patch up their friendship, they couldn’t (and didn’t) ever get together in the studio, or on the stage again. No mind. They left such a fantastic body of work behind, both as a group and as solo artists. Rejoice in that.

Let It Be is, for me, the perfect end of the Beatles. The message is a good one – let it be.

Friday, August 14, 2009

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make

47 New Radicals, 'You Get What You Give' ; 48 Embrace, 'Ashes'

I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I would much rather be positive than not and so I naturally gravitate towards positive message songs. You know the type - Electric Light Orchestra's Hold On Tight (to your dreams), Bob Marley's Trenchtown Rock, The Lighthouse Family's Lifted - that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Maybe these lines from Lifted sum it up best - 'I wouldn't say I'm mad about the rain, but we'll get through it anyway'.

Generally the message is all about rising up, making something of yourself, following and holding on tight to those dreams - and we ALL need to be reminded of these things from time to time.

To represent these feel good/good message songs I've chosen two songs I first heard on television, being used to sell cars (I think) and football. Isn't it great when you eventually track down a song you've loved on TV and it turns out even better than the advertisement!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

wild horses

45 The Velvet Underground,
'I'm Waiting For The Man';
46 The Rolling Stones, ‘Wild Horses’

With only five songs to go I now have to consider what I’ll be leaving out and what five to include. I haven’t really followed any cohesive plan along the way. I’ve only had a few songs peculating at any one time and certainly not five. My modus operandi has been to wait till inspiration hits and then the entry pretty much writes itself.

For the final five, I'm pretty sure there won't be any rap, hip hop or funk, or classical, or opera, or House, or Techno, or 'world' music. I just don't like those forms/genres. There are only a couple of rap songs that I can bear to hear twice -Nelly's Ride Wit Me definitely, and maybe Eric B and Rakim...maybe. But that's it. Funk is a genre that is something of a mystery to me. At the risk of sounding like my parents complaints about Led Zeppelin, it's the mindless repetition within the funk form, as with Techno and House, that fails to move me. As far as I'm concerned Opera and Cradle Of Filth style death metal are one and the same - unlistenable, and I enjoy the baroque style of classical music but more for appeasing Jacky when she's sick of hearing Dwight Yokam.

So, the final five will in all likelihood be quality pop music. That's that settled.

For some time I've been thinking about another conundrum. I have been wondering what to end my list with.

An early thought was that the 49th song needed to bookend my first one (The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down) by contrasting with it. The Velvet Underground and Stones were contenders for some time because, to me, they are the polar opposite of the fabs. But in the end I've chosen a more appropriate way to finish. Instead you get VU and the Stones now.

An early post on this blog dealt with my feelings about The Velvet Underground, and my belief that everyone’s musical taste can be ultimately tracked back to either The Beatles or The Velvet Underground, who I contend are at the opposite ends of the pop spectrum.

In terms of opposites they fit the bill all over the place – different continents, very different musical processes, different artistic sensibilities. I mean, could you EVER imagine a Beatle song titled 'The Black Angel's Death Song' , and George Martin couldn’t be further removed from Andy Warhol really, could he?

I know The Velvet Underground & Nico is often on people's best ever classic album lists but it doesn't do a lot for me. Mainly because Lou Reed hasn't established his dominance yet, the quality of Sweet Jane and Pale Blue Eyes were some way off, and there was way too much of Nico for my taste. I'm Waiting For The Man though is an excellent slab of dirty guitar and Lou's whiney voice is perfect for this little tale of Lou waiting for his drug connection who's dressed in black with a big straw hat.

As for the Stones - well they're the Antichrist aren't they? Drug deranged child molesters and evil incarnate. Mick is the horned one (and the horny one), while Keef IS the skull ring. Again - can you imagine Macca decked out in one of them?

All very simplistic stuff. The superb neo-country of Wild Horses gives the lie to all that. The image of Keef lying on the floor listening to a playback in the Gimme Shelter movie immediately tells you that the human riff has soul (man). God bless him!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

losing when my mind's astray

44 Syd Barrett, ‘Dominoes’

For entry number 44 (only 5 to go after this one), we move from the bright pop of the Tremeloes to the incandescent aura that surrounded Syd Barrett. It’s like comparing the atmosphere on Mars to the heat generated by the sun.

In 1970 Syd was not yet a burnt out cliched acid casualty. He was still frequently a coherent rapscallion who could play with the language and with the sounds that he heard in his head and, with help from Dave Gilmour, he could still translate those sounds into songs. One thing’s for sure – no one else on the planet could have written Dominoes, certainly not The Tremeloes.

It’s such a tricky song – it’s hard to pin down. It shifts and morphs and won’t sit still. Was it really written 40 years ago? Extraordinary! How is it that the power of a great pop song can survive for all those years? Maybe because the song is both of its time and universal. It’s got a sense of the twee and the cosmic, is dark yet warm. It deals with the mundane (playing dominoes) and questing (don’t you want to know with your pretty hair). It contains (probably not deliberate) references to various senses - (the sound of a lark, the texture of a shell) and the elements (fireworks, tears) but in the end it’s more about time passing than it is anything tangible. The days are like dominoes, one tumbles after the other in a permanent now.

Syd sings with a peculiar melancholic delivery and you can sense the days just drifting by him in a haze. That haze is created in the sound scape by the backwards guitars. After The Beatles Rain, this is the best, most natural use of this technique (David Gilmour’s production or Syd? Who knows? Only David now).

Poor Syd. He flamed out in a blaze of glory. Time goes by…

Robyn Hitchcock does a terrific version in his garden -

In the midnight moonlight hour

43 The Tremeloes, 'Here Comes My Baby'

Infectious pop music from 1967 floats my boat, pretty much every time.

I was ten years old in 1967. I got my first grown up bike, took my first tentative steps away from my mum (she let go of the seat and I was off), and listening to great pop music. The summer of 1967 was "The Summer of Love" in San Francisco. It also became an important year for psychedelic rock, with releases from The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour), Eric Burdon & The Animals (Winds of Change), The Doors (The Doors and Strange Days), Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter's), Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), Love (Forever Changes), Cream (Disraeli Gears), The Rolling Stones (Their Satanic Majesties Request), The Who (The Who Sell Out), The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico), and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love).

But I wasn't listening to this stuff (they would all come much later), instead I was aware only of songs. For example: The Small Faces - Itchycoo Park, The Beatles - Yellow Submarine, and The Tremeloes - Here Comes My Baby.

Especially The Tremeloes.

So, what do you notice about this video? It's obvious isn't it. The smiles. You can see the pure joy of singing this fun song about being dumped for another guy. I was 10 - being dumped for another guy wouldn't happen properly for another 9 years - thanks Dallas! All I was reacting to was the cow bell, the whoops of joy around the song, the beat, and the smiles that could be heard in the voices. Watching this video just makes me feel good. And that's important.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

It just might be a one shot deal

42 Zappa, ‘Big Swifty’

Ladies and gentleman – watch Frank! I know what you’ve been thinking, all through this list you’ve been thinking to yourself, “Where’s Frank?”

Frank has been hovering over this list from the beginning. He’s been mentioned a few times already and I like to imagine him reading my entries and reacting to the choices and stories. A wry smile maybe, a raised eyebrow perhaps, a shake of the head at times. He’s a great editor actually. A few times I’ve wondered and reconsidered and, sometimes, hit the delete button.

It’s actually a wonder he ever released anything, given his exacting standards. But maybe that’s just the image I’ve superimposed on him. He could be a merciless critic of others – mainly the bloated rock stars that he saw around him. The Beatles would have enjoyed the parody of Sgt Peppers but Peter Frampton came in for an appropriately scathing attack for ‘I’m in You’. No one was really immune from his caustic wit. Certainly not television evangelists, Tipper Gore, and those without a sense of humour.

His catalogue is so huge and so varied in style and quality. It’s tricky picking one song that represents the joy I feel when listing to him. I’ve written about Bongo Fury, The Mothers Live at the Fillmore and Hot Rats already on the blog. Each of those albums is completely different, as if they were written and performed by three different Frank Zappas and those three barely scratch the surface of his genius.

I’m being a little disingenuous here. It’s actually not hard to pick one at all. The Waka Jawaka/Hot Rats album is my clear favourite and his album that I’ve played the most often. Every second of it is unique, special and rewarding. It’s remarkable that one guy can create all of this stuff in his head. For me, Frank is even more of a creative genius than Brian Wilson. Brian, while I love his stuff, basically only worked in a straight-forward pop mode. He got crazy around the ‘Smile’ period with drugs and insecurities and then couldn’t finish his work. Frank just kept on going during all those years. A stable marriage to Gail, no drugs, no rehab, no insecurities!

Big Swifty is a superb piece of music. At 17 minutes 22 seconds it is not one second too short, or too long. It sounds perfect to me, as it leaps along from the intro into a steady pulse of ever changing textures and sounds. Horns and pianos and guitars mingle, jostle for position, leave and reenter when it’s appropriate. The separation and space between the instruments is anchored by Erroneous on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. The song is a paradoxical exercise in simplicity (what feels like hundreds of musicians is actually just Frank and five others) and teasing, intricate, complexity. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but very time I hear it I truly hear new things. Big Swifty. Those 17 minutes and 22 seconds just fly by. Thanks for the music Frank. Rest in peace.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Starbuck's sharpening his harpoon.

40 Mountain, 'Nantucket Sleighride', 41 David Crosby, 'The Lee Shore'

I have a fascination with the sea. It doesn't extend to me wanting to muck around on boats but I love the romance of the sea and the idea of old sailing vessels like the Cutty Sark. I stood behind the wheel of that ship in London and I could image what it must have felt like to sail on it. When we lived in Leigh-on-sea we would often wander around the estuary and enjoy all of the sights and sounds and smells of the old fishing boats docked there. It seems like I've usually found myself living close to the sea.

Songs about the sea do it for me time and again whether they be allegorical (Split Enz - Six Months in a Leaky Boat), of disaster ( Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald), of the old whaling days (Nantucket Sleighride) or of carefree abandon ( CSN's Southern Cross).

I'm not going to write too much this time - instead I'll let the music do it for me. Two versions of The Lee Shore - the CSNY one with Neil playing some sublime guitar is a favourite version of Crosby's dream/song and you can almost taste the salt in Mountain's song of whaling, harpoons and Starbuck!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'm seein' your world of people and things, Hear paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

39 Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportees’

Generally music doesn’t do tragedy. I’m not talking about the ‘she done me wrong’ song or the unrequited love and ‘I’m in a mess’ song – I’m talking about the reality of death type of tragedy. Murder ballads don’t count because they are usually a domestic drama. I’m not even talking about the Ohio or Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll type of protest song. I’m talking about a larger scale of tragic death song, like when hundreds or thousands of people are killed.

I don’t think any rock song can do horrific events justice, because merely via the form there is a trivialisation aspect at work. It doesn’t stop people having a go though.

The stupidity of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has been a suitable subject for some big names. Lennon tried with Luck of The Irish and while I like the tune I suspect it’s because I love Lennon. U2 have their own Sunday Bloody Sunday and it rocks, that’s for sure, but the self conscious nature of the song (‘how long must we sing this song’ ) just reminds us that this is a song. The killing fields in Cambodia produced a Mike Oldfield soundtrack of nice music but no songs as such. The Dead Kennedys produced a slab of indignant anger for Holiday In Cambodia that I love but that anger is directed more at the reactions of upper class rich white kids than it is at Pol Pot.

Bruce Springsteen realised all this instinctively when he responded to the 9/11 tragedy with The Rising – he obliquely references the tragedy and it works. Neil Young goes for the specific in ‘Let’s Roll’ and it doesn’t.

I can only think of two songs worthy of inclusion on my list that touch the requisite sensitivity buttons in an artistically superior kind of way while also being damn fine songs. And they are not rock songs.

The folk tradition is about the only form that can it carry off. There is an earthiness and honesty inherent in that form that makes it possible. It is a tightrope walk, though – the chasm of sentimentality on one side and a river of earnest bilge on t’other. The song can’t be too specific but needs a hook. One of the two I'm referring to is Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is a great song. In a kind of straightforward narrative it details the... um...wreckage of the iron ore ship – the Edmund Fitzgerald. The only thing, though, is - it is not spine-tingling, and for the most part it seems to be more about the weather and the actual ship than it is about the tragic deaths.

Woody Guthrie manages to capture lightning in a bottle in Deportees by focusing on the way we deal with a mass tragedy – by dehumanising it. The lyric is a skillful combination of the poetic and reportage - ‘The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, A fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills, Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? The radio says, "They are just deportees".’ The genius hook, of course, is the use of names – Juan, Rosalita, Jesus y Maria. It touches the universal, adds the personal, even a hint of the spiritual, all within a three plus minute pop song.

In Woody’s song we feel for the deportees who die in the airplane crash, and without adding the earnest pomposity of The Doors’ Unknown Soldier, we are able to reflect on the other victims of similar circumstances. I can't think of another example of such brilliant illumination.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On my way to sunny californ-i-a

37 The Beach Boys, 'California Saga: California'; 38 Brian Wilson, 'Orange Crate Art'

I know I've mentioned this before, but for a while there, (1973 - 1983), I was in love with the idea of America. Much of this love came from an idealised view of California, fuelled by The Beach Boys. During that ten year period I collected Beach Boys albums like crazy, read/listened to the beat poets of San Francisco, and fantasised about Route 66, Steinbeck, and riding the freight trains to the orange groves. At one point during this period I got a heap of travel agent brochures and planned to go to San Francisco and the California coastline. I didn't follow through and in some ways I'm glad because the IDEA of America was what I was in love with. In my heart, I knew if I actually went I would be disappointed. Since then I have only made it to Anaheim and I adored it, while knowing, what I knew before.

My eldest daughter is about to head off (next week) to spend a year in San Francisco with her American boyfriend. I'll be living vicariously through her for the next year. And listening to Orange Crate Art and old Beach Boys' albums.

California Saga: California was one of my first Beach Boys memories and the Holland album is one of my favourite albums (along with that era's Beach Boys In Concert double album). Like everyone who has ears I admire Pet Sounds but Sunflower and Holland have a firmer place in my heart. The images within Al Jardine's song are very evocative - all bright golden sun, clean air, sycamores, monarch butterflies and cool clear water - as he takes us on a journey south of Monterey, down the south coast - Salinas way. The crowning glory is the Big Sur congregation where everyone loves everyone in a Beach Boy way, magic in the air.

The allusion to Steinbeck's Salinas binds the song to Van Dyke Park's Orange Crate Art lyric. While Al name checks Steinbeck's travelin's with Charley, Van Dyke aims at the awesome Grapes Of Wrath.

The other aspect that links both these great songs is how appropriate the music is to the mood and clarity of vision. Al Jardine is presumably responsible but he must have been getting nods all around the room. I wonder why he didn't sing it? I've heard versions of him doing the song and they sound great, but maybe that's my Mike Love bias at play. The song just lopes along, just like those barrancas that carve the coast line. Brian must have been very proud.

Speaking of Brian - Orange Crate Art, the song and album, were a major return to form. For me the marriage of Van Dyke Parks' lyrics and Brians' music never quite worked before this. I can't get worked up about Surf's Up, for instance. It makes no sense to me. A bit like James Joyce (wow - I just compared Parks to Joyce!). Critics rave and rave about him and he's this giant literary figure but have any of them read all of Ulysses? Did anyone understand it? Like hell they did!

But OCR speaks out plainly about memories. I can visualise the orange crate table, the rocking chair and the barnyard gate. I can smell the aroma, and hear the lonesome locomotion roar. I can see that hobo hopping on the train rolling where grapes of wrath are stored. Again the music is entirely appropriate, as it instantly transports us back to a simpler time.

[Couldn't find a clip for Orange Crate Art]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dearly beloved...

36 Prince and the Revolution, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’

Singers have been singing about sex since Adam wandered through Eden humming to himself while eating an apple. Old blues songs didn’t mince any words or hold back any details. Elvis frightened white America because he moved in a licentious way while making white girls go weak. Robert Plant wanted his lemon squeezed until the juice ran down his leg, for God’s sake.

My first dawning that music and sex were inextricably linked was in 1971. I ordered a copy of The Mothers Live at The Fillmore from the RCA record club – it was on sale and worth a punt. I knew nothing about Frank Zappa or the Mothers Of Invention or that ‘The Mothers’ was polite shorthand. Boy was I in for a surprise.

What greeted me was an album I could never play without headphones on – my parents would have killed me. My mother refused to let me buy a copy of Joe Cocker’s Cocker Happy because she considered the title vaguely rude. She never actually said that, I just picked that up from her roundabout explanation over time. What would she say if she heard The Mothers rapping overtly about sex with groupies, prostitutes and mudsharks??? This was all a scarey proposition for a teenage boy growing up in sheltered New Zealand suburbia. Things would never be the same again.

In retrospect this was all great training for my time as an academic, studying English at university. Shakespeare and Chaucer were no great revelation because Frank Zappa had laid the groundwork (so to speak). I was able to understand double entendre and sexual symbolism at the drop of a hat (watching Benny Hill on television may have also helped).

By the 1980’s and 1990’s the world had moved on in many ways but singers were still singing about sex. My life had certainly moved on and changed dramatically – my beloved mother had died and I was married with children of my own. The standards my parents had set remained with me though, and I still don’t own a copy of Cocker Happy. Although I was no longer listening to The Mothers Live at the Fillmore I was listening to Prince.

Depending on who you listen to, Prince is either a genius, a chancer, a sex maniac, a freak, or all of the above. Those who think him a chancer/freak should listen to Sometimes It Snows In April. For a while there (1982’s 1999 until 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls) I was a rabid fan. Then he wrote ‘slave’ on his face, started releasing 10 CD sets of everything he twiddled with while insisting the world call him an unpronounceable symbol.

Let’s Go Crazy though is Prince in his purple prime. It kicks off the Purple Rain album with gusto! All attitude, sexual strutting and Hendrix guitar – it’s a massive statement of purpose after the lengthy wig outs that mostly make up 1999.

We’ve come a long way since Elvis haven’t we, but in many ways Prince is a direct descendant of those old blues records that sing of strutting red roosters bossing the barnyard. Everything is very explicit in the song. He’s Prince and when he says ‘let’s go nuts’, he’s not talking about getting a bag of cashews. You want further evidence? How about, ‘She picked up the phone, Dropped it on the floor, (Sex, sex) is all I heard’ . This is pretty tricky stuff to sing about without lapsing into corny self-parody. To sing it you need to be convincing. Prince somehow manages it while dressed in purple and mugging the camera, to say nothing of his antics with his guitar.

My Prince listening days are pretty much over. My sons and extended family tell me about his latest album from time to time (pretty good according to them) but I can’t believe he’s ever going to better Purple Rain as an album and Let’s Go Crazy as a song. And let's hear it for The Revolution!

Monday, July 27, 2009

The flowers of deep feeling seem to serve me

35 Joni Mitchell, 'Song For Sharon'

Stories are important to me, having developed a love of reading from an early age. I don't know exactly where it comes from - that love. Three of my children have found it to varying degrees but my eldest daughter has not yet (she's 20). They have all had roughly the same stimulus to read but it hasn't stuck with her. Who knows why.

I think it's that love of reading and love of stories that leads me to songs like Song For Sharon on Joni Mitchell's great great Hejira album. It's a strange twisting, turning story that rewards every time.

This song/story is in the form of an open letter to her old friend Sharon.

Joni is on her way to Staten Island to buy herself a mandolin when she sees a wedding dress on a storefront mannequin. She watches the big ferry boat chuggin' back with a belly full of cars. She thinks about some girl who'll see that dress and crave that wedding day like crazy.

She thinks about little Indian kids on a bridge up in Canada. They can balance and they can climb like their fathers before them. They'll walk the girders of the Manhattan skyline in the future. Joni passes the Statue of Liberty. She's intending to head to the church to play bingo as soon as the ferry arrives at Staten Island. She's forgotten about the mandolin seemingly.

She tells us she can keep cool while playing at poker, but she's a fool when love's at stake because she can't conceal emotion. She remembers seeing a gypsy down on Bleecker Street.She went in to see her as a kind of joke. The gypsy lit a candle for my love luck and 18 bucks goes up in smoke.

She tells Sharon directly that she left her man at a North Dakota junction and came out to the "Big Apple" here to face the dream's malfunction. She calls love 'a repetitious danger'.

She also tells us about a woman she knew who just drowned herself in a well. Joni speculates as to why - maybe her friend was just shaking off futility or punishing somebody. The act has provoked all of Joni's other friends to get in touch with her and give her advice: Dora says, "Have children!"; Mama and Betsy say-"Find yourself a charity, help the needy and the crippled or put some time into Ecology."

But all Joni really wants right now is to find another lover.

She reminisces about when she and Sharon were kids in Maidstone. Joni remembers, amongst other things, going to every wedding in that little town to see the tears and the kisses and the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown. Joni remembers going skating after Golden Reggie and chasing white lace and dreams of love. Instead, he showed her that first you get the kisses and then you get the tears. Joni is still chasing the dream of being a bride.

Having returned from Staten Island (did she buy the mandolin?) Joni watches 29 skaters on central park's Wollman rink circling in singles and in pairs.

This concludes Joni's story but before she takes her leave, she addresses Sharon directly to end the song. She says, 'Sharon - you've got a husband and a family and a farm. I've got the apple of temptation and a diamond snake around my arm. But you still have your music and I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky. You sing for your friends and your family, I'll walk green pastures by and by.'

It's an extraordinary story, almost dream like in its development and shifts. I wasn't able to find a live performance of Joni doing the song so I've attached the studio recording. It might be fun to read through the story as you listen, in singles or in pairs. Good luck with your own repetitious danger.

And it stoned me to my soul

34 Van Morrison, 'Haunts Of Ancient Peace'

I think it takes some distance to appreciate what you've got, and it takes being a stranger in a strange land to truly appreciate your surroundings and your life. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning while I'm knee deep in the river, sometimes I need to get out and watch the river flow.

I was born in Auckland, New Zealand and moved to England in 2004. When I lived, worked and travelled in England I felt far more distinctive than when I lived in New Zealand. I felt my kiwiness, heard my accent, took greater pride in being a kiwi - far far more than when I lived in NZ. I also loved England, Scotland and Wales (never made it to Ireland unfortunately). At the time, I made a list of things I loved about the place. Here's some - The Guardian, the BBC, Radio 2, the Tate Modern, football culture, Edinburgh Castle, the B&Bs, the semi-detached in Victoria Road, Wimpy bars, Fopp, the tube, the Thames estuary around Leigh-on-sea, Tintern Abbey and other haunts of ancient peace.

Van Morrison was another alien invader who fell in love with Avalon. It stoned him to his soul, as it did me, as it does so many others.

Van and I go way back to my teenage years. My great friend Greg Knowles introduced us. Greg and I were about 15 and the Moondance album was the initial hook and the clincher to our lifelong friendship. I have always gravitated to people who love music and have an off kilter sense of humour. My friends' recommendations of music have been crucial throughout the years, especially when I was young. Without Greg, Noel, Roger and others I would probably still be listening exclusively to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, Uriah Heap and Deep Purple - my steady diet from 1971 to 1974.

When I met Greg in 1974, he was much more advanced and eclectic in his listening than me. Van was one example - Greg had 100% more knowledge of Van Morrison and even had a copy of Hard Nose The Highway which was brand new at the time. This amazed me. Music was much more inaccessible for me in those days. Not having a part time job, I had to save for ages by doing odd jobs. I'd pore over music papers endlessly - read reviews, look at artwork, and agonise about each potential selection. It's no idle boast that I can remember where I bought every single piece of vinyl. Nothing I got was ever bought at the time of its release though - it needed to have stood the test of time to some greater or lesser extent for me to shell out my hard earned pennies.

So I was over the moon when Greg made me a cassette tape (I actually still have it) with his selection of Moondance, St Dominic's Preview and Hard Nose tracks. There's nothing like the first time you discover these things. Your ears and mind open, new vistas present themselves, a skin sheds itself, the world changes. I miss those times when a new tape from my cousin Christine, or Greg, or Roger would introduce me to new sounds (in the late 1970s Christine sent me a brilliant tape from Rochdale, that I still have, of the new punk bands - it was like music from a distant planet). These days I earn enough to take a punt on The Doves new album. Some special things have been lost about that lead up to a purchase.

Haunts Of Ancient Peace leads off the Common One album. A theme through the album is Van's love of Avalon, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, T S Eliott, the English countryside - hillside, mountains, valleys of Kendall and elsewhere. Van's lyric suggests that we go back to those haunts of ancient peace whenever we need some relief. This echoes Wordsworth's lines in the Tintern Abbey poem - when he thinks "in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din of towns and cities"of scenes such as the Abbey to gain 'tranquil restoration'. My spirit has also often turned to thee.

Let Van have (nearly) the last word - 'You know I want to go there one more time again. Be still in haunts of ancient peace. (Be still).'

Amen to that.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

D'you know what I mean?

33 Oasis, 'Sunday Morning Call'

The Britpop media hype of a few years ago is looking pretty creaky as the years go by, as most media constructs do. The much hyped 'new thing' is a long standing tradition in music papers. Bruce Springsteen actually survived being called the future of rock 'n' roll in the press, but for every Springsteen there is a Steve Forbet. Steve, like about a billion others over the years, was hailed as the next Dylan (we haven't got done with the old one yet so it's a farce right from the get go).

The other thing the press love to hype is perceived animosity amongst bands. If that doesn't fly they'll work at actually creating a rivalry where it doesn't exist. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were mates and each was living it large and drug fuelled, but for some reason (commerce actually - selling papers) they hyped the Beatles as cuddly, safe and cute. Lennon, in even his fat Elvis cuddly period, was NEVER safe and cute. The Rolling Stones were hyped as the antithesis - guys that were not cuddly or cute, and presented real and present danger to your daughters. Therefore they were ubercool to rebellious teenagers all over the world.

During the similarly hyped Britpop era the press got to it with two lippy English bands - Oasis and Blur. There wasn't any love lost but they were all musicians trying to establish an image, a career, something.

It was never a fair contest - Blur was always going to trounce Oasis with one brain tied behind their back. Because they were better musicians? Nope. Because they had better songs? Hell no! Because they were more intelligent? Piss off! No - they were always going to win, despite it all, because the press decided they would. So they painted the Gallaghers as dolts, sibling rivalry gone mad, talentless imbeciles who...shock/horror/probe...ripped off The Beatles. Arch copyists, fakes!! Not original you see. Just copied the Lennon blueprint and sat back grinning.

Too simplistic. Everybody piggybacks, pays homage, rips off. It's what you do with it. The Beatles took bits from Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis and Roy Orbison among others. Please Please Me was initially in the style of the Big O but came out completely The Beatles. If you're gonna be inspired (best case) or steal (worst case) then do it from the best and make it your own.

Even Nick Hornby was taken in! In 31 Songs he compares Noel Gallagher's influences (The Beatles) to John Lennon's ('Goons, Chuck Berry, music hall, surrealism, loads of things'). Sorry Nick but - I can't go for that, no can do. Just because Noel LOVES Lennon and the Beatles doesn't mean that he's not interested in or affected by 'loads of things'. Interviewers focus on his Beatles inspiration, they don't bother to dig out his soul and nor should they want to. It doesn't make good copy. And Noel's too smart to upset the apple cart. And nor should he. It's all show biz, after all.

I love the music made by Noel Gallagher/Oasis and I have a hard time picking a favourite from all of their classics. I'll plump for Sunday Morning Call because it's relatively unknown. It was released as a single and is on the not very popular Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants album. It soars and spins and swoons. There's a brilliant vocal from Noel and it's just great and it doesn't sound anything like the Beatles and it'll do me, so there.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rubber soul man, rubber soul.

31 The Chi-lites, ‘Have You Seen Her?’; 32 Boyz II Men, ‘The End of the Road’

You’ve probably worked out by now that I’m not black; I didn’t grow up in Chicago or Philly or Detroit; I didn’t have parents who mistreated me or denied me love or who deserted me via divorce; I found my true love 25 years ago and we treat each other well. I have, therefore, very little background in which to identify with blues or soul music. I love the blues, though, and I love the expression of the human drama that makes up soul music, even though both forms talk about stuff I have no direct experience of.

Nick Hornby is right when he calls soul 'grown up' music. Soul troubles itself with the real things that happen to real people. Unlike my twin brother from another mother, I have never stratified my listening. I didn’t get to 1976 and move away from prog and heavy rock to embrace punk. Once that had run its course (three years at best) I didn’t then move onto soul and 'grown up' music. All of my eclectic listening has overlapped for the last 40 years. At the moment, while I type this, I am listening to Isis – a prog metal band from California. Also in the 5 CD disc changer is a soul collection, The Doves Kingdom Of Rust, a NZ sixties music compilation and Prince’s 1999. Pretty varied stuff. The soul compilation has a favourite track of mine by The Chi’lites that includes spoken word sections.

I’m a sucker for the spoken word section in a song. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the literary part of my brain or the fact that the singer suddenly breaks off from the reality of a song, steps forward, and actually speaks to me directly. The very first time I experienced this thrill was in the song Dance All Around The World by New Zealand’s Blerta.

They are not a group I know much about even now. Here is the sum total of my Blerta knowledge – Bruno Lawrence was their drummer at some stage, Beaver sung for them at some stage, they were a commune of some kind I think, and they put out at least one other single – Joy Joy (I know this because I own it). I also seem to have a vague recollection that they toured around in a bus, a la the Merry Pranksters.

When Dance All Around The World came out in the early seventies I responded to the hippy trippy message and that spoken section which culminates in the spine tingling (still) message that the guards and teachers threw open the castle gates and ‘danced out into the field’. The plummy voice, phased drums and guitar are the key triggers of my enjoyment.

The Chi-lites are a band that I know even less about. I don’t even know any of their other songs but I know I love Have You Seen Her? Somehow they tap into a universal soulful moment. The song has two spoken word sections and even STARTS with one. That's ballsy. These bits set the mood – all dark. She’s left him and, pathetically, he thinks he sees her around town but…nope – she’s gone, and he thought he had her in the palm of his hand. The organ backdrop and the interlocking voices make this a song I can hear innumerable times. Like the blues – it’s not a depressing song, even though the substance of the song is not a rosie picture. Miraculously the song never strays into self-parody.

It’s those voices, singing in harmony and trying to outdo each other that set it apart from all the other soul bands for me. There is something magical that happens when certain talented people who can sing, get together and harmonise. Take Crosby Stills and Nash, The Beach Boys, The Four Tops, The Beatles, The Hollies, The Byrds, The Temptations, The Jacksons, The Grateful Dead, and Boys II Men, for instance. Each has a distinctive sound from the sum of their parts.

Boys II Men are part of this rich musical history and, unlike me, were born in Philly (I think). I’m not sure but they must also have been well versed in gospel or street corner doo-wop or something. They must have been. When they sing End Of The Road they sell the song completely. I believe it. Not once, but every single time I hear it, and I hear it a lot. Again the song includes a really natural spoken word section. The last section where the band falls back and we get hand claps and voices has me singing along every time, at the top of my lungs. Something magical must be happening inside this music for me to identify so strongly. I don't really want to analyse it too much though. It's the spirit inside the music and it moves me. That's enough.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Headband grooving our special today

29 Headband, ‘The Laws Must Change’; 30 Evermore, 'Light Surrounding me'

New Zealand music of the early seventies was a peculiar beast. In the 1960’s the aftermath of the English invasion meant New Zealand homegrown talent modelled themselves on English equivalents to compete and satisfy the local needs. As we are so far away from the rest of the universe this was vital when English bands weren’t touring. No Tommy Steele? Hello Ray Woolf. Quincy Conserve was our Blood Sweat and Tears, Mr Lee Grant was our P.J. Proby and Dinah Lee was our Sandy Shaw (one of my very first musical memories is her single Do The Blue Beat) and so on.

As the 1960s became the 70s, New Zealand bands became rockier, hairer, grungier and more and while they started to develop a local New Zealand flavour they were still in thrall to overseas influence. Space Waltz play their dues to Bowie and glam, John Hanlon was our Cat Stevens and so on.

One of the first albums that I fell in love with was Headband’s first album. I must confess though, that without the recommendation from the touring Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1971, I would not have found Headband so quickly. So as well as Led Zeppelin III, I bought Headband’s Happen Out album from a record shop in Onehunga.

I had no idea, at the time, that Tommy Adderley had already had a career as a singer or that Jimmy Hill (the drummer) and Billy Kristian (guitars) had been in Ray Columbus and The Invaders in the 1960s. The music is unbelievable as each of the musicians is playing at the top of their game, especially on The Laws Must Change - a John Mayall song (Headband were originally called The Bluesbreakers!). My father used this track to test his hi-fi equipment. He'd crank up the volume to 11 and the distorted guitars by Kristian really rocked.

It's one of those rare tracks that still sounds fresh in 2009. Most of the stuff I love from this period lives in the memory more than the now.

Speaking of 2009 - for me, Evermore carry the torch for New Zealand music at the moment. Zed looked like a bright prospect but then they fell apart after their second album. The early promise of the Datsuns has diminished over their last three albums but Evermore continue to innovate. Now into their third album they will go a long way before they better Light Surrounding Me from album number 2. When I heard it during the Olympics (TV One used it as part of a station promo) I was immediately hooked. I'm looking forward to what they do next.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I don't want to change the world, I'm not looking for new England

27 Billy Bragg, 'Levi Stubbs' Tears'; 28 The Four Tops, 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey bunch)'

Barking is an interesting place...I think. I passed through Barking a lot when I lived in Essex (I never lingered for too long). The train from Leigh-on-sea (where we lived) to Fenchurch St (when we went to London) had a stop at Barking and when I taught at Walthamstow Academy I had to change trains at Barking twice a day. So really, all I know is the station and its environs. It's not pretty - a lot of terraced housing, train tracks, litter. A kind of no-man's land, between the Essex countryside and the thrill of London proper, is my dominant impression.

I'm being unfair...probably. If you grew up and went to school in Barking, I'm thinking you probably needed to be pretty tough to survive. This is the area that fostered the emerging talent of one Billy Bragg, the so-called Bard of Barking (but not by me, I usually hate that kind of lazy shorthand tag, I make an exception for the fabs).

My first meeting with Billy was on a South Bank Show. Billy was shown cruising around record shops with a guitar and an amp on his back. He played 'A New England' and I loved the rawness of the sound but I was especially taken with his voice. There was no attempt to disguise the Thames estuary accent. I don't recall ever hearing an accent like it. That distinctive voice is a large part of his charm, as is the social realism (at times verging on soap opera) in his lyrics - 'all the girls at school are already pushing prams'. I loved the opening - 'I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long'. Genius!

I much prefer Billy's kitchen sink dramas and love songs to the political edgy stuff he does (or did). His early albums were typified by the split between angry-young-labour-man songs and young-poet-with-tender-sensibilities songs.

Levi Stubbs' Tears is definitely a song in the latter category. In this brilliant pop song, Billy takes on a third person narrative of a woman who has been abused and shot by her husband. You may like to read that last sentence again. Amazing, but true, and you can sing along with Billy!

The story in a nutshell - as a teenager, the woman has married a wrong un after running away from home. He leaves her (he’s that type), but later returns from sea and shoots her. No reason is given for this so the casual violence is even more of a shock. As she recovers from her 'accident' she tries to recover her life. Listening to the Four Tops helps her to recover. Oh baby, it sure does. Why tears though? I have no recollection of Levi crying in any song, or even a Four Tops’ song about crying. Maybe it’s Billy’s artistic licence at work in sympathy with the woman. Never mind – it makes for a great title.

Along the way Billy name checks the immortal songwriters for the Tops and others on the Tamla Motown roster - Norman Whitfield, Barratt Strong and Holland/Dozier/Holland. Wow. How can such a sad song be so joyous? Easy - you name check those guys and say that their feel good songs will make it all okay. And they do (and they will).

Take I Can’t Help Myself frinstance. Any song that is sub-titled Sugar Pie Honey Bunch has an awful lot going for it, has it not. Levi Stubbs' smile is all over this song – it’s a joyous explosion of a tune. Levi’s a fool in love (is there any other kind in the pop song?) and he can’t help himself. That’s it! Less is more. The magic happens with the infectious beat and the singing.

If the protagonist is at home listening to that song, she will be mumbling to herself – ‘it’s you and me against the world kid’.

Disneyland is about to close

26 Aimee Mann, 'Red Vines'

Shakespeare time everyone. Of course, Aimee is not Shakespeare. She's better than that - she's Aimee, and she's of our time.

The comparison to the great dramatist is a stoopid, fatuous one I know. Will people in 2409 (4 hundred years time) be listening to Aimee Mann? Der - no (sorry Aimee, but really, truthfully, you'll be lucky if you last until 2359). I don't mean that she should be compared to William. What I mean is, compared to 98% of rock lyrics - her work is vastly superior and of a depth that, without reaching too far, I can compare her to something that has lasted four hundred years.

Red Vine is a great song because it can be interpreted in a variety of ways. At first glance/hearing the poetry appears impenetrable (so far so Shakespeare, right?). Here is the whole lyric:

They're all still on their honeymoon
just read the dialogue balloon
everyone loves you--why should they not?
And I'm the only one who knows
that Disneyland's about to close
I don't suppose you'd give it a shot
knowing all that you've got

are cigarettes and Red Vines
just close your eyes, cause, baby--
you never do know
and I'll be on the sidelines,
with my hands tied,
watching the show

Well, it's always fun and games until
it's clear you haven't got the skill
in keeping the gag from going too far
So you're running 'round the parking lot
til every lightning bug is caught
punching some pinholes in the lid of a jar
while we wait in the car

With cigarettes and Red Vines
just close your eyes, cause, baby--
you never do know
and I'll be on the sidelines,
with my hands tied,
watching the show

And tell me, would it kill you
would it really spoil everything
if you didn't blame yourself
do you know what I mean?

Cigarettes and Red Vines
just close your eyes, cause, baby--
you never do know
and I'll be on the sidelines,
with my hands tied,
watching the show
watching the show

Just as analysing Shakespeare leads us up/down some interesting garden paths, so
analysing Aimee repays with some fragmenting discoveries. Where do we start? Characters.

Literally there are three people in this marriage (where have I heard that before?). If we take 'honeymoon' figuratively things aren't so clear, so we'll proceed literally.

The three people are: 'I', that is - the narrator (let's call her Aimee), 'you' and the spouse form the married couple.There is of course a fourth participant to all this - the listeners (one of whom, let's call him Wozza, is puzzled but enjoys trying to imagine the scene).

The natural assumption to make (for me) is that 'you' is male which provokes one stream of thought. If it's female it's a whole different ball game (if you'll pardon the clumsy sexual allusion).

Aimee is the narrator, therefore the whole story is skewed towards her point of view. The dialogue balloon ('everyone loves you, how could they not' in my reading) is chosen by Aimee. It makes the couple sound narcissistic at worst or obsequious (fawning) at best.

So what's going on?

Aimee is observing - she's on the sidelines, watching the show, unable to do anything about the
situation. Is she a jilted lover? A relation? A dispassionate observer? Only Aimee really knows but my speculation is that Aimee has had a sexual relationship with the husband before the marriage and knows the guy enough to know he can't paper over the cracks for long ('you haven't got the skill...'). He's hoping for the best ('you never do know'). Aimee is friends still with the couple (the three are together in the car) but she knows the marriage is doomed.
There is a sense of foreboding in the lyric - 'Disneyland is about to close'. Okay it's not Lear railing against the storm and stripping himself to his core being, but it's not looking rosie.

I like the way each part of the song reveals more and more about what's possibly going on. The last bit, 'would it kill you...if you didn't blame yourself' provides a few more clues. Is Aimee
actually happy with the situation or is she agitating for him to be proactive? I'm not sure but I like the way that thought is left hanging at this point.

It's a neat trick - a threeish minute pop song that has a slice of autobiography with a mood that is believable. Not too many can pull that off. Maybe two percent. Aimee and William.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same

24 Badfinger, ‘Without You’; 25 The Raspberries, ‘I Can Remember’

Although powerpop is a commercial construct, it does evoke a certain kind of song. As a sub-genre, it’s often linked to its parent - the Beatles. In reality powerpop’s only one facet of the Beatles and that’s the Paul McCartney Back In The USSR pop song facet. Macca, and The Beatles, were/are always much more than that. Nevertheless, I love the bands and songs that are often market under the ‘powerpop’ tag, even though there are often some weird groups shoehorned onto powerpop compilations – The Kinks? The Proclaimers? Buzzcocks? Joe Jackson? That would be – no, no, no, and no. But The Motors? The Cars? Electric Light Orchestra? The Records? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. What makes the difference – songs with beefy guitars, McCartney hooks, fuzzed up guitars, harmony vocals, scuzzed up multi-tracked guitars, a Ringo like drummer, riffy chords, they last about 3 minutes, no longer, and, oh, there are lots of guitars. Think Wings circa Band On The Run as the template.

All kidding aside, it is probably true that without McCartney a lot of these bands would have gone in very different directions and I wouldn’t be writing about Badfinger and The Raspberries right now. The Beatle comparisons don’t end there though.

The Beatles, Badfinger and The Raspberries were four piece bands whose resident genius was their rhythm guitarist (John Lennon, Pete Ham and Eric Carmen respectively). Both Badfinger/Raspberries recorded for Beatle related labels (The Raspberries for Capitol, but Badfinger win this battle as they were on Apple Records).

Even aside from Apple, Badfinger continue the Beatles comparison through McCartney’s (and later – Harrison’s) direct involvement. Badfinger started life as The Iveys (chosen to echo The Hollies). They were signed to Apple by Beatle roadie, Mal Evans, and were allowed to grow slowly. This was handy coz their Maybe Tomorrow album doesn’t give many hints of the greatness to come. Nor is it powerpop.

But then, along came Macca. He donated Come And Get It as a sure-fire single and Badfinger copied his lead note for note . Unfortunately, the rest of Magic Christian Music is only slightly better than The Iveys album, mainly because they rework many of the Ivey’s songs.

No Dice, however, is another thing altogether, and the first real Badfinger album on which Pete Ham shines. It contains his classics, No Matter What, Midnight Caller, We’re For The Dark and the great Without You.

In contrast, The Raspberries were one of those bands like Coldplay, Led Zeppelin and The Doors who arrived, album 1, fully formed. Who or what were they before they put out their first album? I’ve no idea. But their respective first albums –The Raspberries, Parachute, Led Zeppelin, The Doors – hit the ground running with a trademark sound. There are no awkward first albums to get the sound right as many have done, such as David Gray, Deep Purple, and Jefferson Airplane. Amazingly, The Raspberries even included an eight minutes long opus on their debut – I Can Remember.

I’ve linked these classic powerpop songs, Without You and I Can Remember, for this post because both songs deal with love withdrawn, denied or goneburger; a common theme within the powerpop world. They are great for when you want to wallow in self-pity. I even made a self-pity mix tape many moons ago and these were automatic choices. Eric Carmen has seldom done better. All By Myself is a great weepie but I Can Remember is CINERAMA in comparison.

Without You begins with I’m- resigned-to-this news that she’s left him and now he can’t live if he has to live without her. We know nothing else – apart from he let her go and she’s sad to go. It’s a little less fleshed out than Romeo and Juliet then. But this lack of information isn’t an issue in the song, because the music is so damned good. I just listen for those guitar bits that go ‘jerhuumm’ and who cares if the lyric is basically meaningless. I know, I know – I told you earlier that I’m a lyric man but Without You is a great example of the ‘less is more’ principle in the lyric department.

I Can Remember is much more expressive in comparison and things are more strung out time wise. Eric remembers the fun they had in summer, going into autumn (when she said goodbye and took off with another guy) and he’s looking forward to spring and a possible rebirth with the reappearance of the sun. But in the meantime the protagonist hurts so much he thinks he’ll die. Things get worse – he hurts more and more each day. It's still not Shakespeare though is it. No, stupid, it’s powerpop. Classic powerpop. If I wanted Shakespeare I’d listen to Aimee Mann.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

From the spiritual sky, such sweet memories have I

23 George Harrison, ‘Be Here Now’
The fabs’ solo years are problematic I know, but I am more familiar with them than I am the actual Beatle years. Throughout the seventies, when I was setting out on my record buying path, few years are as special as 1973. In that year all four fabs put out solo albums and Lennon’s comment was spot on – if you want a new Beatle album, just collect the best songs off the four solo albums and hey presto. The four albums in question were Ringo, Mind Games, Living In The Material World, and Red Rose Speedway. All great solo albums in their own write.

Here’s my selection for 1973’s 12 song single album by The Beatles called ‘Be Here Now’ (I thought about doing a double but that would have been stretching the quality control a tad too much):
Side 1
Mind Games – (John - vocals)
I’m The Greatest – (Ringo - vocals/drums; George – guitars; John – piano)
Little Lamb Dragonfly – (Paul - vocals)
Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) – (George – vocals/guitars; Ringo - drums)
My Love – (Paul - vocals)
Be Here Now – (George – vocals/guitars; Ringo - drums)

Side 2
Big Barn Red – (Paul - vocals)
You Are Here – (John - vocals)
Photograph – (Ringo vocals/drums; George – guitars)
One More Kiss – (Paul - vocals)
Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long – (George – vocals/guitars; Ringo - drums)
Meat City – (John - vocals)

That’s a pretty damn good 1973, Beatles’ record. It’s got all four represented on merit. Ringo has a novelty song on side one, written by John – that’s appropriate, and a great Ringo song on side 2 (Photograph) written by George – also appropriate. It’s got a Paul rocker (Big Barn Red) and a John rocker (Meat City). It’s got cutsey Paul (One More Kiss) and romantic Paul (My Love). It has cosmic John (Mind Games) and romantic John (You Are Here). It has rocky George (Give Me Love), and it’s got a Long Long Long style Harrison ballad to close out side 1 that I adore. That song also lends itself to the album title as well – what, you thought Oasis had gone all Buddhist for their third album released in 1997? No such luck – they were merely quoting George, as they had done for Wonderwall.

Be Here Now (the George song) is an amazing piece of work and, for me, the standout track on this album, as Long Long Long was for The Beatles. Musically I find a lot similarities between the two – the same other-worldly space is there between the notes and the pace is similar.

The lyric to Be Here Now is very different though. This isn’t a direct love song to Patti (Long Long Long’s ‘I love you’ is pretty direct). Instead it’s a contemplation on life in general (‘Why try to live a life, that isn't real’), and George’s life in particular. He uses the song to give himself advice, ‘Be here now as it’s not what it was before’. This may be seen as an assessment of his love for Patti in a marriage that was falling apart. Next year’s Dark Horse album would address the failure in less oblique fashion.

It’s this kind of honesty that endears me to John Lennon and George Harrison. They certainly didn’t live blameless lives and did their share of stuffing up relationships. I mean if you were married to Patti Boyd would you fall out of love with her?

In her book ‘Wonderful Tonight’ she has some perceptive comments on George’s psyche, ‘I think owning that huge house and garden created confusion in him. It was a constant reminder of how rich and famous he was, and that gave him a sense of power, but in his heart knew was just a boy from Liverpool who was talented and had got lucky’.

Be Here Now is a musical artefact that provides further evidence. George wants to be alive in the moment; he exhorts himself in the lyric to ‘Remember. Now’. But in his heart he knows he’s trying to live a life that isn’t real. It’s interesting that he never got rid of the huge house and garden. Lennon’s plea to ‘imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can’ was something he also couldn’t actually do. They both lived their lives in the material world. George's album was called 'Living In The Material World'. It has songs about his trying to life a more spiritual life but it's on an album that exists in the material world of commerce. He, and John, made a lot of money from their albums and they are aware of this tension, confusion, and, I guess, guilt. In the end, it gave us some great songs.

It’s this searching and the honest examination that I love about them both. I’ll even buy Electronic Sound and Two Virgins for them!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Ill let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours

21 Bob Dylan, ‘I Shall Be Free'; 22 Jimi Hendrix, ‘All Along The Watchtower’

Bob Dylan is a mountain that must be climbed for anyone wanting to have a serious record collection. Blood On The Tracks was my introduction. Thank the lord for that. It could have been Knocked Out Loaded and I would have stopped right there. Or it could just as easily have been Self Portrait, or Dylan, or New Morning, or Street Legal, or Shot Of Love, or Down In The Groove, or Nashville Skyline, or…there are some clunkers in the oeuvre aren’t there. Luckily though, it was one of the great peaks that launched me off on a trip through his back pages.

The voice, of course, is what delays a lot of young people from getting started on Dylan’s work. After a while (okay – years) eventually the realisation creeps on you that the voice is right for the songs and the delivery becomes a charm unto itself. Again, luckily, I heard songs like Talking World War III Blues and I Shall Be Free soon after Blood On The Tracks and the playful humour, wit, word play and intelligence won me over.

Like Nick Hornby though, I’m a long way from being a devotee. Dylan, you may have noticed, is missing from that completist list a few posts ago. I think because, on the way to getting hooked, luckily number 3, I bought Self Portrait and quickly realised I needed to cherry pick to avoid considerable future heartache.

I do have the biggies though – Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Another Side of Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Highway 61 Revisited, and Bringing It All Back Home are all present and correct. My favourite Dylan period, 1973 to 1976, is well represented by Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Planet Waves, Blood On The Tracks, Desire, and Hard Rain. I’m interested enough to have also bought The Bootleg Series Vol 4 (the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) and Vol 5 (the Rolling Thunder Revue from 1975). I’m also partial to the Dylan & The Dead live album too, even though it’s constantly reviled by Dylan-ogists. Those same Dylan devotees will be horrified to learn that I also own nothing after Infidels in 1983. His latest stuff just doesn’t move me.

Dylan songs often sound best when covered by others. I almost don’t care who – Nancy Sinatra or The Hollies or The Byrds or Jimi Hendrix or even Hugh Cornwell (yes the Stranglers man does a passable version of Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again).

Jimi clearly loved Dylan and enthusiastically launched himself at Like A Rolling Stone as soon as he could. He obviously took more time to work out his response to All Along The Watchtower because it becomes a whirling cyclone of a song in Jimi’s hands and is so much better than Dylan’s much more tame original. In many ways it points to Dylan’s problem – dashing off versions of his songs without fully exploring their possibilities. No, that’s unfair – he could have spent twenty years experimenting with Watchtower and NEVER come up with Hendrix’s electric carnival. The combination of Dylan’s words and Hendrix’s musical maelstrom bring real menace to the lines. “Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl, Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl”. It’s one of those rare moments of genius when two rock gods stand on each other’s shoulders and reach another plane altogether.